Review — The 10 Worst of Everything: The Big Book of Bad by Sam Jordison

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sam Jordison has packed his non-fiction book The 10 Worst of Everything: The Big Book of Bad with mindboggling facts related to our past and present, which he displays in countdown lists from ten to one, with the worst offenders left to last. The author must have carried out a tremendous amount of research both in compiling lists from scratch and in sourcing existing ones.

I love it when a book teaches me loads of new stuff in an entertaining way. The author’s subjective comments are often hilarious, maybe some of them tongue-in-cheek, but who knows? He enjoys making passing jibes about Brexit and Trump, although for him he’s showing amazing restraint on the political front! I didn’t always agree with his choice of worst things. For instance, I happen to be a great fan of Game of Thrones (no. 9 in his list of worst TV programmes of all times) and adored the movie Dances with Wolves (no. 5 in the list of worst winners of the best picture Oscar).   

He has divided the book into ten main sections that, in turn, he divides into sub-sections. You may not find each one of equal interest but there’s something for everybody. I read the whole book from cover to cover, but struggled a bit with lists appertaining to sport. Also, I think there’s one too many lists dedicated to The Beatles, where just one would suffice. On the other hand, I’m quite tempted to check out “The Worst Duets in Pop History” on YouTube, especially as his footnote warns you against doing so. His list “The Ten Most Brutal Shakespearean Insults” has filled me with the desire to re-visit the bard’s works, following their past slaying by the school curriculum.    

For me, the two most fascinating main sections of the book were “Bad Nature”, which includes the deadliest insects and plants, scariest human parasites, and most venomous snakes; and “The Olden Days”, which includes punishments in ancient mythology, the craziest Roman Emperors, worst Popes, absurd popular scientific theories, and worst medical procedures.       

Ultimately, this book demonstrated what a miracle it is that the human race has survived for so long, despite… well, I’ll leave you to fill in the ellipsis by reading the book in its entirety. And when you reach the final sub-section “The Ten Most Likely Ways the Earth is Going to End”, you’ll be delighted to discover that humans could prevent five out of ten of them.

A highly recommended read.                 

Sam Jordison is a journalist for The Guardian and writes regular articles about books and publishing on their website . He’s the author of several bestselling books, including the Crap Towns series, Literary London (co-written by Eloise Millar) and Enemies of the People. He’s also the co-director of the award-winning publisher Galley Beggar Press.

The 10 Worst of Everything: The Big Book of Bad is available from all good bookshops in the UK, as well as from HiveWaterstones, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Review: Thanks to Matt Haig, Two Books that Could Save Your Life

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Fourteen years ago or so, before he was a published and well-loved author of fiction, Matt Haig stood at the edge of a clifftop in an idyllic location on a beautiful sunny day, and almost jumped to his death. But he didn’t and this non-fiction book tells you why, with an honesty and humour I found most touching. Also he tells you how he overcame the worst of his anxiety and depression and decided living was the better option. Nowadays, if he sees the signs of an attack coming on, he knows how to recognise and counter it before it turns into a full-blown attack, and without the help or hindrance of any type of medication. He tried valium right at the beginning and it didn’t work, its failure only adding to his anxiety.

Having worked in psychiatry in the past, I would agree with with Rev. Richard Coles when he suggested in a review that Reasons to Stay Alive should be on prescription. On a personal level, it helped me identify the triggers to some negative thought patterns and anxiety of my own that had began to interfere with my enjoyment and engagement with life.

Whether you suffer from anxiety or depression yourself, or if you live with someone who does do so, I would highly recommend reading this hugely accessible and life-changing book.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Notes on a Nervous Planet is Matt Haigh’s follow-up book to his bestseller Reasons to Stay Alive, both of which I read back-to-back and have found tremendously transformative in my life. Sometimes people stumble across a book or, in my case, two books at exacly the right time. I’d only just finished reading two of his novels, when I heard him being interviewed on a BBC Radio programme one evening to coincide with his release of Notes on a Nervous Planet and I thought, Wow! I can so identify with what he’s saying here and I already love his fiction, so why not try his non-fiction, too?

The book starts out by recapping some of Reasons to Stay Alive, which is all about how and why he didn’t commit suicide and learned survival strategies to beat his depression and anxiety. Then it goes on to explore in depth the impact of various aspects of modern life upon our nerves such as obsessing about The News, over-engagement with smart phones, obsessing with and measuring our worth over how many “likes” we’ve achieved or not achieved on social networks or our blogs etc. He’s never preachy about any of this but only sharing with you things that he has experienced as anxiety triggers. I’m not usually into lists but some of his lists, at the very least, gave me some real ah-hah moments and, at the most, made me laugh out loud.

As with his previous book, I want to give Matt Haigh a big virtual hug and send him a huge thank you for stopping me self-destructing with anxiety and permanently slipping into the slough of despond. I’m no longer spending as long online (sorry fellows, as much as I love you all) and I’m reconnecting with people in real life instead of being an utter recluse for much of the time, plus I’m being more self-disciplined about working on my own creative projects.

Both Reasons to Stay Alive and Notes on a Nervous Planet are highly recommended and accessible reads for sanity’s sake.

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Just a little Post Script to this post, this is my first attempt to publish a post using the new Gutenberg editor on WordPress. It has been a most exhausting experience that has raised my anxiety levels. Some deep breaths required…

Does anyone know how to disable the featured image at the top of the post and stop it duplicating the image that you’ve used as a header to your first paragraph? This is a bug that needs fixing, pronto. I had to delete my paragraph header and leave the featured image be, which means it doesn’t line up with my next paragraph header image. Grrrr…  

#Book Reviews: Three Awesome Novels I’ve Read This Year

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I finished reading this novel weeks ago and still can’t think of a way to praise it highly enough.

The main character, Eleanor, has her routine — work, home, a limited wardrobe, a functional diet, and two bottles of vodka to get through each weekend. Often her social and communication skills aren’t in accord with other people, but I loved her bluntness and lack of awareness that her honesty might not go down well at times, plus her nerdiness; she’s a veritable mine of information. In both these respects, she reminded me a bit of Saga in the Nordic crime series The Bridge and, as with Saga, many of her comments caused me to laugh out loud, more so for being justified more often than not.

This is a story where the main protagonist starts out lonely, damaged, and with serious trust issues, but who slowly learns to believe in herself with the help of a few people who show her a huge amount of kindness and the meaning of true friendship, especially her work colleague Raymond from the IT department upstairs.

Gail Honeyman’s writing style is accessible, fluent, and pleasing, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that this, her first novel, won the Costa Book Award last year and has been in The Sunday Times Top ten Paperback for many months.

This book is an absolute must read…

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How to Stop Time
by Matt Haig

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I’m glad to have discovered that this well-known, prize-winning children’s author also writes fiction for adults. How to Stop Time isn’t a standard time-travel novel, although it jumps backwards and forwards between various points in history. It’s about a man who has a syndrome that prevents him from aging. At first, he thinks his condition is unique to him, until he discovers there are others like him.

The story explores how it feels to be different, and how people at various times in history have treated people who don’t fit the norm; the dangers, the loneliness, and, in the case of this novel’s main protagonist, the problems with forming a longterm attachment with another human who has a comparably short lifespan.

The novel is easy to read, gently humorous, sad in places, but seeks to find the best in humanity. I liked it well enough to buy another novel by the same author and read it straight after this one.

A recommended read, if only that it won’t leave you exhausted and the author has a writing voice that fills you with warmth.

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The Humans
by Matt Haig

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Humans by Matt Haig is an absolute delight. It’s about an alien who’s sent on a mission to replace/pose as a university professor of mathematics and suppress the prof’s cracking of a formula that would advance humanity in a way which could prove dangerous to extra-terrestrial civilisations across the galaxy.

Although this sounds like the makings of a science fiction novel, I would not class it as such. It’s more about people and their relationships with one another in their daily lives and how, despite all their flaws, they’re worthy of a place in the universe.

The alien looks exactly like the uni prof and knows his mathematics, but that’s where the similarity ends. As he learns to be human, his adoptive “wife” and “teenage son” can’t believe the positive change that has come over the once cold and arrogant husband and father.

I don’t want to say anything further about the story, to avoid any spoilers, but I read this at a time when I was feeling extremely negative, if not depressed about the human race, and Matt Haig helped me look for and rediscover the good in people once more.

A highly recommended read, that’s quirky, funny, moving, and possibly good for your mental health!

Book Review: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga 
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the past, I’ve ploughed at a snail’s pace through Man Booker Prize winning novels or abandoned them altogether. Thus, when a friend lent me their copy of the 2008 winning novel The White Tiger, I opened it without much optimism but, to my amazement, found myself hooked from the first page.

The story is set in India, and takes place over a period of one week (the same length of time I took to read the book!). It opens with the main character, Balram, writing the start of an “autobiographical” letter to His Excellency Wen Jiabao from China, who is due to visit India the following week.

What follows is an extraordinary tale of a rather disreputable character, who calls himself an entrepreneur and considers he’s one of India’s success stories. Born into a poor family and taken out of school early, Balram is determined to better himself and rise through the social ranks, by means most foul if necessary. His self-justification for his  ruthless actions is beyond the pale, but I found myself intrigued by him and half-wanting him to succeed, while all the time thinking, No, he can’t be planning that – No, this cannot be about to happen – No, he really has done this horrendous thing.

The novel is an eye-opener, and one that has left me with a more complete picture of India. As David Mattin wrote in his review in the Independent on Sunday, “Adiva sets out to show us a part of [India] that we hear about infrequently; its underbelly”. It is a story about the haves and the have-nots, and one man who talks himself into the coveted job of a driver for a rich man and his wife, learns fast through listening hard and manipulating circumstances in his favour, and, in doing so, decides his employers are undeserving of their privilege and he the more deserving.

The writing is fast-paced, seamless, succinct, and yet richly descriptive. The paragraphs are short, so there is lots of white space (which, in my experience, is unusual for a literary novel). I loved the dialogue, as well as Balram’s inner dialogue. He has to be one of the most intriguing anti-hero I’ve come across in a novel in a long time. I really disliked him as a person, but found myself understanding where he was coming from and wondering if he’d succeed in his quest or end up incarcerated in prison for life.

A highly recommended read.

Book Review: Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Nineteen MinutesNineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

However difficult the subject, Jodi Picoult always delivers big-time. She has an incredible capacity to show all sides of the story from the different viewpoints of characters trapped in ethical dilemmas. She never moralises, or allows even an ounce of author intrusion. Instead, she takes the reader right into the heads and hearts of those characters who are telling the story.

Nineteen Minutes is about a sensitive boy who has to suffer years of bullying, which begins the day he starts nursery school and continues through the years until, at the age of 17, he snaps and goes on a shooting spree in his high school. His mother is a midwife who brings babies into this world and now her son has become a murderer. She never realised that he had a problem, so you can imagine where that takes her on the self-blame front.

Basically, this a story about a situation that is every parent’s idea of a nightmare. Told from the third person viewpoints of the main players, while moving backwards and forwards between different time strands, the author skilfully builds up detailed psychological and social profiles of these characters, plus taking the reader through the gathering of evidence for the court case that follows the shooting.

This is a long novel (nearly 600 pages), but well worth the read, albeit a galling one. It made me think deeply about contemporary society and the “in-crowd” versus those it excludes. It also made me glad that I’m the age I am and not having to go through school now, especially with the added pressure of social networking.

I found it very hard to put this novel down, but it left me exhausted afterwards and unable to settle to reading any other work of fiction straight after.

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